Soapbox Science

Opportunity knocks with the “what is a germ?” challenge

Geoff Hunt is the Public Outreach Coordinator for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He did his undergraduate work at Cornell University, and received his PhD from Princeton, where he studied regulation of embryonic stem cell behavior. In addition to (or as part of) his day job, Geoff is also an occasional science rapper (link). You can follow Geoff on Twitter at @GoodbyeShoe.

When I presented my grandparents with a copy of my undergraduate thesis, titled “Partitioning of Fluorescent Probes in Lipid Model Membranes Showing Fluid-Disordered/Fluid-Ordered Phase Coexistence,” they did what anyone in the 21st century would do: They searched every single word in the title on Google. Even then, they were at a loss to understand what I had spent three years researching. The problem was the culture of science, drawing a thick line between “us” in the lab and “them” outside of it. My thesis was meant for a scientific audience. If anyone else wanted to read it, good luck to them.

Numerous commentators (including several on this site) have observed that scientists need to become better communicators, and that they should do outreach to the lay public. Blame for deficiency in these areas is often assigned to pride, time constraints, a disdain for the non-scientific audience, or lack of communication skills. Such bemoaning is then followed by a litany of reasons why scientists should get more involved with extracurricular activities. Rather than rehashing that same debate, I would like to instead propose a different thesis: Scientists fail to interact with the general public because of a lack of awareness about these opportunities.

When I was in graduate school, I was painfully unaware of almost everything happening outside the walls of my lab. My mind was on my project, and my project was on my mind, all day, every day. It was only when an outreach opportunity was presented directly to me by the person running the program that I bothered to invest the time. Yet there are outreach activities happening all the time, in every corner of the world. Science cafes are becoming the de facto social network for anyone interested in science. Science festivals are booming, with more than 70 taking place across the United States in 2012 alone. Grassroots outreach ventures are continually popping up in cities and towns. Even science communication training is becoming more and more prevalent: scientific meetings now regularly feature sci-com sessions (check out listings for the 2013 Experimental Biology meeting), universities offer courses and degrees in science communication, and there are now meetings dedicated exclusively to communicating science (the ScienceOnline unconference and the SpotOn meetings, for example).

So why is participation in outreach still lagging? I feel that it’s not that scientists don’t want to participate; it’s that they don’t have the time and resources to organize, develop or even actively seek out these activities. That is where I come in. As the Public Outreach Coordinator for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), my job is to get scientists involved in outreach and science communication activities by lowering the activation energy for their participation. I collect and share information about existing opportunities. I help create and organize programming. Sometimes I even pay for it.

To prove I can walk the walk, I am offering you an opportunity to get involved with science outreach. In conjunction with the Cambridge Science Festival, ASBMB is proud to present the “What is a Germ?” challenge. It is a take-off on Alan Alda’s incredibly successful “Flame Challenge” albeit with a biological bent: Can you explain what a germ is? Your entries will be judged by students at elementary schools in the Boston area, and finalists will be invited to present their entries during the Cambridge Science Festival’s Curiosity Challenge in front of a live audience.

This is a great opportunity for you, as a scientist, to take off the lab coat and try your hand at turning scientific jargon into plain English. It is also a chance to directly interact with and inspire future generations and to show them that scientists are real people who do really cool things.

This activity is the only the start. ASBMB will continue to develop and sponsor all varieties of outreach programming. But I’m only the catalyst. It’s up to you to provide the energy to drive the reaction to completion.

For more information about the “What is a Germ?” Challenge, go to Entries close on the 1st March.


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    Mudit Gupta said:

    Nice post. I hope more of such activities come into place which will be exciting for other people to attend and would increase participation from diverse audience.

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